When the Dials go back to Zero

In two recent team meetings I have had a sharp reminder of what a good leader does.

In one, a planning meeting, the leader, exasperated by the conversation, suddenly interrupted the dialogue with the outburst “this is all too pedestrian!” A stunned silence descended on the room, followed by some enquiries and much defensiveness: natural reactions to a sudden, critical intervention. The leader’s intention was to elevate the discussion, to set a clear benchmark, a more distant horizon to head toward. He did not have the answer but he had a sense of the parameters of the solution. He just knew there was another game to be played, a bigger field on which the company should be competing. He wanted his experts in the room to define the new detail. The reaction of the team was confused. The team leader was unable to articulate the totality of his instinct and the team felt affronted that the work so far wasn’t good enough. Their previous hard work now seemed devalued. Credit to them though, they asked questions and looked to understand.

In the other, a new leader was meeting the team for a ‘getting to know you’ session. An established team with a reasonable track record, the team members were very comfortable with each other, very experienced in their fields. After lunch, without warning, the team leader said “I have to give you some feedback”. Well we all welcome feedback don’t we! This team did. She then proceeded to give the team some very straight, less than favorable feedback about how they were viewed by other teams in the business, by senior managers and by suppliers. Again there was defensiveness, disbelief, a stumbling into questions, a desire to make sense. Whose truth was right? Yet sitting watching this I sensed something had changed, something would never be quite the same again for this team and their business world.

Why do I pick these two examples? Because they reminded me of a video I used to show to managers in the 1980’s called ‘The Paradigm Shift’ by Joel Baker. Probably way out of production now, its essential message was that when something changes the dials go back to zero – meaning that what was once a sure dependable fact, a way of working, an attitude or mindset, an opinion, is no longer valid. All the dials you’d so clearly relied on before to guide you, no longer calibrate. That is what I think happened in both of these teams.

So why are these events so important? I think because a paradigm shift appeared to have happened, or at least started, in both of those meetings. Though each incident was confusing, painful and potentially damaging for the teams, clearly each held a kernel of truth. You could see, feel and almost touch the change happening. These two examples were key moments, obviously, for those particular teams, but perhaps more importantly for their organisations. Both businesses need to change, to raise performance, to be different in their market places. Yet for all the dedication and commitment – and there are bucket loads in both organisations – both are in danger of mediocrity.

Is part of the work of the leader to push on the edge of paradigms, where the boundary lines are often thin, blurred or sometimes absent? It is certainly key work for senior leaders to be willing to address: to surface the underlying issues, to raise the unspoken – even when there are no answers; to do this and to anticipate and expect confusion, yet to continue. Are we willing to do this more? We need to be, because this is the core of leadership: not the softness of a comfortable team, but the toughness and rigour of real questions and truths. Our people deserve this and our organisations need the result in performance change.

Is the business bully running out of energy?

In a world of endless demands for growth our business leaders are increasingly being asked to create organisations which make exceptional profit, to satisfy thirsty shareholders, and also to build working communities for people to thrive, develop and find satisfaction. A tall order, and of course, on many occasions the money wins out.

We live and work in an economic model with some crude levers of control. If there is a downturn, there often appears no other route than to make staff cuts, regardless of the impact on individuals or the wellbeing and morale of the business. It all makes logical sense – we have to stay in business – but the price seems high. Discords can quickly arise between those who make the decisions – who hold leadership – and those who receive the impact. Little wonder then that people become cynical and dispirited, waiting for ‘the next round of cuts’ – regardless of the promises and the polished corporate communication.

Now add to this the slow change in management style. Many senior leaders have not grown up in open environments, where putting as much emphasis on how the organisation develops and sustains itself is as important as the task of making money. Little wonder that cultures lacking this perspective often produce leaders who are driven, focused primarily on business results, with little time for the nuances of the human dynamics in organisations.

In such environments the business bully can and does survive…and often wins. Bullies get results, certainly in the short term. Fear is a great motivator and in our hierarchical structures people often do not have the skill or the will to stand up against managers with more control and power. So the disagreement, the unsaid words go underground and slowly people reduce their commitment – not speaking up in meetings, letting key issues pass for the sake of a peaceful life, going home early and finally looking for anew job.

So whose issue is this? Primarily the boss’s. He or she needs to be aware of the impact and strength of their style and how they use, or misuse, their power.

With 360 degree feedback in place in many businesses, logic suggests leader awareness should be high. But collusion erodes these measurement systems – ‘I won’t tell him, he doesn’t listen anyway’ – or worse – ‘he’ll go on a witch hunt until he finds who made that comment’. So how open is the leader to development, to being challenged, perhaps publicly? It is hard to take that step. He already sees himself as successful, so why change? Indeed his fear may go much deeper – ‘can I change?’ Some managers may feel personal change will blunt their ‘edge’, rather than enhance their capability. However people ultimately follow behaviour, not words, so the bully eventually reaps his own long term harvest.

The open, listening manager also reaps a harvest too, but often one very different from the bully’s. Research tells us that the most successful managers have teams that want to work for them. High performers are attracted to open, inclusive leaders and sustained results follow.

Yet there are two sides here. The people being bullied need to change too. Allowing things to stay as they are, regardless of how abusive the situation, is also wrong. It takes belief and confidence. A team member needs to be sure of themselves and their own self-worth, to recognise the moment to speak out on an issue, regardless of how well tasks are being achieved. Those close to the leader must confront, be assertive, and intervene, trusting their inner compass for guidance as they deal with issues. Change can and does happen when a clear-thinking, assertive person interrupts a repetitive organisational pattern. Done eloquently, without compromise, the dynamics will begin to shift. Motivation rises, issues are not pushed under the carpet, people can be themselves. The real tough business issues are then addressed with strength, vigour and openness.

So changing behaviour is a shared issue, but one which fundamentally starts with the manager. He or she holds power and responsibility and has a duty to be aware of the impact of their leadership style and approach, particularly when they are stressed. Maybe useful questions in any interaction might be: ‘Am I, in what I am doing or saying, adding to the long term growth and sustainability of my business? Will this add to our success, not only financially, but also by drawing out the very best from all those around me?’

We are all tasked with the job of getting excellent results and creating business environments where people grow, and are motivated and satisfied. Nothing less will do.

Did you put the dustbins out?

Have you ever sat in a meeting knowing that something important was being overlooked, or wanting to give your opinion on something but feeling inhibited lest your view seems petty or out of place? Recently, a simple domestic oversight set me wondering to what extent all of us are constrained by anxieties about how others might perceive us.

The lift doors slid open and I stepped out into the reception of a major global organisation. Business entrances are always interesting to me, they say so much about a business and how it operates. This one was designer organised: stylish, precise, clean and highly efficient. My badge had already been printed for me and the receptionist was polite and helpful. I sat down, picked up the Financial Times and relaxed; I was early. My mind wandered … something was missing. Something from the agenda for my meeting? Something at a later meeting?

No, I realised it was dustbin day at home and I’d left without putting out the bin out. Just an irritating domestic issue; I should have done it last night, but hadn’t. No problem though. I’d call home. My wife works from home, so she would catch the dustmen.

I dived into my briefcase, grabbed my phone and switched it on. The start-up tones reverberated around the reception area; a few heads turned. I looked up and saw people looking at me – all well dressed, smart suits, intelligent conversation going on. I suddenly felt shy and inadequate. Everyone was listening to me and I was about to ask my wife to put out the dustbin, when in my mind they were all busy talking about share prices, acquisitions, major business issues, not the trivia of normal life! My inner voice went on a rampage … they, of course, did not struggle with the normal domestic issues I seemed to fight with; they looked together, calm, composed, and the sort of leaders we all could trust … their dustbins were organized!

… I never did make the dustbin call. My appointment arrived and I was whisked up in the internal lift to the seventeenth floor. However, on the journey home it did set me thinking. Why was I so bothered about making that call? Was it my shyness, my perceived lack of organization, when all about me looked organized, serene, ‘together’ and way beyond the minor issues I was struggling with that morning? Was it simply a learning experience for me about being myself; being confident and relaxed regardless of the situation, the size of the issue, or the public arenas I might find myself in?

Maybe, but perhaps there was something else too. Just perhaps, the scenario that morning reflected what got said or not said in that particular organization. Were ‘dustbin’ conversations allowed, or were they viewed in some way as too trivial, unacceptable in the hallowed halls of large business? Was the same true of other information: was there knowledge, awareness, key data this company needed but people felt somehow unable to share it?

How do people air their concerns? Who listens and how is the information treated? Could something that might be perceived as trivia, or not important at that time, be the unsaid point that creates a fault line that runs right through a company? Is this some part of the Enron, Anderson or Parmalat puzzle?

How do things become hidden in a company, and what are the spoken and unspoken rules? Or is it just embarrassment and lack of social skills that prevents some subjects from being aired? It seems to fit with many of the ethical issues facing large companies. Standing out against the current thinking, mind set, culture and accepted practice can be difficult and sometimes threatening. It is tough to be the one to raise the flag and speak out; it is far easier to do so with wisdom after the event, but clearly not helpful then.

A week later I’m in the reception of another major global business, antenna up. It’s a male security guard: this doesn’t bode well if my hypothesis from last week is correct. Yet the atmosphere is relaxed, open. Maintenance men mix with visitors, friendly conversation and banter is exchanged. In the lift with the CEO’s PA, I talk of my last reception experience – ‘Ah well’ she says, ‘it wasn’t always like it is here. Now we want the company to be open and everyone to share their views and concerns’. Oh, I mull as the lift doors open, how I wish it had been today that my dustbins needed putting out!